Avoiding a Cold War showdown, the United States and the Soviet Union sign an agreement guaranteeing a free and neutral Laos. While the agreement ended the “official” roles of both nations in the Laotian civil war, covert assistance from both Russia and the United States continued to exacerbate the conflict in Laos for the next decade.
Laos had been a French colony since 1893. During the 1930s and World War II, an independence movement began to grow in the small nation, as did a communist movement known as the Pathet Lao. After France granted Laos conditional independence in 1949, the Pathet Lao began a civil war against the pro-French Laotian government. In 1954, after the devastating defeat of French troops at the hands of Vietnamese independence forces at the battle of Dien Bien Phu, an international conference attempted to deal with the situations in Southeast Asia. The 1954 Laos decision stated that the Pathet Lao would be confined to two remote provinces of Laos, and that national elections would be held in two years to settle all political questions. In fact, the conference did nothing to stop the civil war in Laos. The Pathet Lao, largely funded and armed with Russian money and weapons funneled through communist North Vietnam, continued its attacks. In response, the U.S. became heavily involved in providing covert assistance to the Laotian government.
Despite the U.S. assistance, the communist Pathet Lao appeared on its way to victory by 1961. President John F. Kennedy issued a thinly veiled threat of direct U.S. intervention in Laos if the Soviet Union did not cease its assistance to the communist revolutionaries. Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev, perhaps realizing that the stakes were becoming much too high in a nation of only peripheral interest to Russia, agreed to a cease-fire in April 1961. At a conference in Geneva in July 1962, the United States and Russia agreed to mutually guarantee a free and neutral Laos.
The 1962 agreement also accomplished very little. American intelligence sources indicated that North Vietnam continued to funnel large amounts of Soviet aid into Laos. In response, the United States began a “secret war,” using the CIA to arm and train an anticommunist force in Laos. In a matter of months, more than 30,000 Laotians, mostly from remote hill tribes, were being used to carry out guerrilla operations against the Pathet Lao. The U.S. operation was unsuccessful, however. In 1975, shortly after victory of communist North Vietnam over South Vietnam, the Pathet Lao took control in Laos, where a communist government continues to be in power to this day.